The ARR Craib MSA Scottish Rally Championship (SRC) will awaken from its winter break tomorrow (Saturday), as the 2018 season kicks off in traditional style with the Inverness-based Arnold Clark Snowman Rally.
With the final round of 2017 in Castle Douglas last September now a distant memory, predicting a winner for the season opener or indeed, the championship, will be a task only for the brave.
However, one thing is for certain, it won’t be last year’s SRC champion or vice-champion’s name engraved on the Snowman Rally winner’s trophy this year, as neither Euan Thorburn or Jock Armstrong will be making the trip north.
Thorburn and Armstrong were locked in a battle for supremacy throughout the 2017 season. The pair were separated by a handful of seconds on the Snowman 12 months ago and the battle continued to rage on as the season progressed, with Thorburn keeping his cool to take the title on the penultimate round.
With Armstrong, Thornburn and five-time champion David Bogie the only SRC victors across the entire 2017 season, the form book has well and truly been reset in 2018 with over 40 largely new competitive stage miles lying between the crews and the perfect start to the season in Inverness.
Making a welcome return to the all-gravel series, Garry Pearson and new co-driver Paula Swinscoe head the entry list in their Ford Fiesta R5.
The Duns driver spent most of last year on the sidelines and aside from a one-off outing on the Pirelli International Rally, Pearson would be a mere spectator. The likeable Fiesta pilot came within one stage of winning a maiden SRC title in 2016, so will be determined to mark his return to the championship with a victory.
Starting at two are Mike Faulkner and Peter Foy in their Mitsubishi Evo IX. The duo hasn’t won an SRC event since 2015, and a long overdue a spot on the top step of the podium. Faulkner hasn’t committed to a full season in 2018, so may be tempted to push more for an overall win, not concerning himself with championship points.
Mark McCulloch and Michael Hendry line up at three after another impressive campaign in 2017, although just what they will compete in remains to be seen. Donnie MacDonald and Andrew Falconer start just behind in their Ford Fiesta R5, having won this event in snowy conditions two years ago.
Bruce McCombie and Michael Coutts will also be eying glory in their Mitsubishi Evo IX, but they face a serious threat from behind with a trio of WRC cars lining up at six, seven and eight.
Quintin Milne and Sean Donnelly top the pile in their Subaru Impreza S11. Andrew Gallacher and Jane Nicol return to the series in their Ford Focus WRC while Fred Milne makes his second appearance in an Impreza S12B WRC. He’ll be partnered by Patrick Walsh.
Barry Groundwater and Neil Shanks (Mitsubish Evo X) and Steven Clark and Paul Gribben (Mitsubishi Evo V) conclude the top 10, with the latter a potential dark horse this year after some blinding stage times in 2017.
Former quad bike champion Lawrence Whyte is also certain to cause a stir. Whyte finished fifth place on his first ever rally, the Wyedean Stages, towards the end of last season in a Ford Fiesta R5. Armed with the same weapon for the Snowman, he starts at 15 with Stuart Loudon in the co-drivers’ seat.
Shaun Sinclair has made a very welcome made a late entry into the event. Sinclair was a regular podium finisher last season, and will draw on the experience of 2017 SRC Co-Drivers champion Paul Beaton.
The fight for the outright win promises to be hot, but with unbeatable prizes on offer, the battle within the various classes and categories is poised to be even hotter.
The SRC Challengers has provided some of the most entertaining fights in recent memory. All drivers who have had no more than one top 10 finish overall since January 1, 2007 are eligible, with Scott McCombie and Michael Binnie winning the category since its return in 2016.
Both men really made a name for themselves in their title-winning campaigns and have continued to impress since.
The Scottish 2WD championship has also always been closely fought, and with 2017 title winner Dougal Brown absent, the battle has been blown wide open.
All two-wheel-drive cars are eligible for points, so predicting a winner is nigh on impossible.
However with series form man Duncan MacDonald returning in his Ford Escort Mk2 and third placed man Mike Stuart re-joining the fray, the battle is finely poised.
Greg McKnight is an exciting addition too. McKnight stunned everybody with his performance on the Border Counties Rally last year in a Mitsubishi Evo IX, as he battled for the lead with Armstrong. This season he returns to the SRC, but in a potent Ford Escort Mk2.
There are plenty of front-wheel-drive runners looking to make a strong start to their seasons too.
Scott MacBeth is the highest seed in his Citroen C2 R2 MAX, and impressed on the events he completed last season. He will face tough opposition within his class however, with 2017 John Horton Star Driver winner Keith Riddick returning in his MG ZR and 2015 and ’16 Junior champion Thomas Gray debuting a Vauxhall Nova that used to belong to MacBeth.
Ally Currie is also expected to challenge, after finishing an impressive second in the BTRDA Fiesta ST Challenge in 2017. Finlay Retson is another who is sure to fly, driving a Fiesta R2 that used achieved several class victories in the hands of Thomas Gray. Honda Civic pilot Alex Ingram will be keenly monitored too. The Snowman marks Ingram’s first ever forest rally.
For 2018 incentive to finish as top two-wheel-drive runner on an event has been heightened, with the event winner in both the 2WD and Challengers championship receiving 50% off their entry into the proceeding round of the SRC.
When it comes to incentives however, nothing quite topples what’s on offer to the SRC Juniors.
A full day of tuition with 1999 British Rally champion Tapio Laukkanen is on offer, as well as a free entry into the Wales Rally GB National, so coming out on top will be vital for the young driver’s career.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the SRC John Horton Star Driver Award to consider too. Entering its second year, the unique initiative sees one SRC registered competitor recognised for an outstanding performance on each round of the championship.
A panel of expert judges will nominate a driver on the Monday after each event who will be invited along to an end of season shoot-out to potentially join the Junior champion in the forests for some tuition with Laukkanen.
The 2018 ARR Craib MSA Scottish Rally Championship is partnered by Pirelli Motorsport, Reis Motorsport Insurance and KNC Groundworks Ltd.
The championship consists of seven forest events across Scotland, taking in over 300 competitive stage miles. The next stage is at Jedburgh on March 10.